The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has published some guidelines (pdf) for health care reform that it seems to me should be accepted as a basic framework by all people of good will. They argue that health care reform should:
⇒ Include health care coverage for all people from conception until natural death;
⇒ Continue the federal ban on funding for abortions and reject any mandate for abortion coverage or access to abortion;
⇒ Include access for all with a special concern for the poor and vulnerable and support inclusion for legal immigrants;
⇒ Preserve pluralism, including freedom of conscience for providers, health care workers and patients; and
⇒ Restrain costs and apply costs equitably among payers.
Predictably, the Vox Nova commenters take this as an indication that the bishops are “backing the President” on this issue, but of course that isn’t true at all: the plan currently moving through the House of Representatives fails to meet the second criterion and seems likely to be a middling success at best on the first conjunct of the final one; and these criteria could in principle be met by any of a range of reform options, from single-payer or mandates or the public plan on one end to something like the Wyden-Bennett bill in the middle to Arnold Kling’s libertarian dream on the other. Obviously there are questions to be answered as to which sort of plan would best, say, restrain costs or ensure universal access to health care, but the fact that reform is necessary does not mean that the Democrats’ plan du jour needs to be passed simply because it’s reform.
It’s certainly true, though, that most folks on the right have been doing a piss-poor job of making themselves seem like anything more than apologists for the status quo. As Reihan recently put it, the fact that a disciplined and devoted minority party can invigorate itself and defeat the agenda of a popular President isn’t the only or even the most important lesson to take from 1994: the consequent failure of conservatives to stand behind a genuine alternative has left progressives solidly occupying the moral high ground on this issue, and while fretting about budget deficits and the threat of federal rationing is certain an effective strategy for opposition, it’s essential not to overlook the fact that people do want reform. Hence until the GOP starts coming forward with serious and far-reaching reform proposals of its own – and note that there is a wide range of policy options that voters seem quite receptive to – the “r” word is going to remain the sole property of the Democrats, and it seems likely that they’re going to get something passed simply by force of inertia. Knee-jerk opposition may be a beneficial stance to take in the short term, but the long-term future of American political conservatism is going to require more than that. Dropping the language of budget deficits and “socialism” in favor of the morally weighty terms drawn on by the bishops might be a good place to start, and an effective way to show people that conservatism does have something to offer to voters who are understandably looking to Washington to fix our broken health-care system.